Of perfect poetry, and punctuation: Jean Valentine’s Break the Glass

Interrupting Infinity Exclusive Commentary. © 2010 by David St.-Lascaux

Valentine_BreaktheGlass230x300WHERE TO BEGIN. ONE COULD SAY that Jean Valentine’s new book, Break the Glass, is typical of her – fragmentary, elliptical, unrevealed, unresolved. Which would be a superficial criticism. Or one could say that Jean Valentine’s new book, Break the Glass, is sheaves of kindness, wherein she shares with us her sapient sightings, gleaned from her hagioscopic observatory at her “hotel in another star.”

Jean Valentine’s new book, Break the Glass, is gratifying and seasoned. It contains a perfect poem, a themed set, and subtly idiosyncratic typography. It calls up, in séance, such diverse luminary shades as Paul Éluard, outsider artist Martín Ramírez, Johannes Vermeer, Franz Kafka and Merce Cunningham, and channels Mayan cosmology, Eve, Diana and Actæon, Orpheus and Eurydice, and Abraham and Isaac. It renders homage to singer Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, writer/activist Grace Paley, humanitarian physician Dr. Paul Farmer, poets Reginald Shepherd and Michal Kunz, the many nameless poor, and, finally Lucy, Australopithecus afarensis, called in Amharic “Dinkenesh” (“You are beautiful”). Shaken, its sluice yields nuggets.

The latest installment in the New York State Poet Laureate’s must-read life’s journey. Conjured shades, a perfect poem and idiosyncratic details in a stunning collection.

Break the Glass has some stunners, and some stunning lines. The Carroll-/Tutuola-/Saint-Exupéry-esque “If a Person Visits Someone in a Dream, in Some Cultures the Dreamer Thanks Them,” dedicated to Shepherd, contains the prose poem stanza:

At a hotel in another star. The rooms were cold and damp, we were both at the desk at midnight asking if they had any heaters. They had one heater. You are ill, please you take it. Thank you for visiting my dream.

“As with rosy steps the morn” (Irene’s air [1:25] in Handel’s Theodora; libretto by Thomas Morrell [1750]), in memory of Lieberson, closes with a brilliant diminuendo of the verbal:

Don’t listen to the words—
they’re only little shapes for what you’re saying,
they’re only cups if you’re thirsty, you aren’t thirsty.

This is a big deal, coming from a poet – a trafficker in logograms, expressing the inadequacy of ideas to express real meaning, implying that music eclipses words, which are merely carriers, not content(!). [For this expounded, see Pound's poetics: logopoeia, metopoeia, phanopoeia.] Eclipsing all, however, the breastmilk cups of her tragic cancer, as words fail, the friend gone.

When reading Valentine one is reminded of the voices of several other compelling female poets: contemporaries Marie Ponsot, Wisława Szymborska and Kay Ryan (especially poems in The Best of It), and the inspirational Emily Dickinson (Valentine’s Dickinson ghostshroud gravestone rubbing proclaims “CALLED BACK”). With them, Valentine shares a panoramic emotional intelligence, lunar calendar neaptide lifeforce, clay Willendorf iconoplasm, and full-term poetic delivery. Par exemple, from “Earth and the Librarian”:

—Take one,
and eat it;
It is sweet,
and it is given for you.

This is Biblical, recalling Eve’s conversation with the serpent…

Ye shall not eat of it,
neither shall ye touch it
lest ye die.

and her later excuse…

The serpent beguiled me
and I did eat.

Maternal exhaustion closes “The Leopard,” a brooding, time-swept, cave-paint resignation, replete with feline carnivore:

In the end,
I laid them all down there at the leopard’s feet,
I was glad to lay them down.

Valentine is darker still in “Desert Prison,” which she begins:

If every present is possible,
how can we have eyes to see?

echoing Neruda’s Book of Questions, except that her question isn’t a flippant speed-chess thought experiment, but rather an intensely tasted hemoglobin wash of murderous mortality. And then “The just-born rabbits,” which you can skip if you savor coniglio al forno. Fortunately, the wrist-slit coed in “Old love, I want to phone you” hears at last an inner voice of hope.

Poets put a lot on the line. In Valentine’s case, the psychology behind poems seemingly unresolved and uncompleted, an hallucinated “blue man” and other recurring apparitions, and the bathypelagic bewailed losses piling up, are telling. Several poems end with em dashes that would be stronger with periods, or nothing:

— Who lives in me?
said Earth —

which, regrettably, doesn’t make sense, and not in a good way, as the closing to the otherwise dense and allegoric “Earth and the Librarian.”

hickey_valentine_230x225_101002jpgJean Valentine, Brooklyn Bookfest 2010. Photo: Meghan Hickey. © 2010.

But these are trivial criticisms in the context of a book containing a Perfect Poem. Break the Glass contains “Traveler,” a little something that implies that Valentine communes with (or at least has close personal knowledge of) an arsonist member of the Unrighteous Thirty-Six. It’s in the same psychological space as Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” Szymborska’s “Breughel’s Two Monkeys” and Simic’s “In the Library.” Without giving the game away, suffice it say that “somebody dies.” In addition to the poems cited above, other keepers in Break the Glass include “I was working,” “I thought It’s time” and the clever, double entendre “I am a page in the court of space,” in which the elements are paired with the poet’s craft:

page            air
pen            water
books            earth
friends            fire

Here the elements translate to spirit, flow, substance and… you can finish this thought yourself.

Break the Glass is, finally, a book of memories, which the life-experienced Valentine has. Of quintessential Lucy, Valentine’s vehicle for a uniquely personal reverie slash exploration, she supertemporally declares:

when my scraped-out child died Lucy
you hold her, all the time.

In the Lucy section, Valentine’s generosity is manifest in “My Work of Art,” in which she humbly acknowledges her role as carrier of the selfless gift of [her] poetry to us:

and the note: I found this leaf
on my way to the Post Office.

Although there appear to be no specific allusions to Wordsworth’s famous Lucy poems (“She dwelt among the untrodden ways || Beside the springs of Dove, || A maid whom there were none to praise || And very few to love”), metaphoric parallels are easy to draw in Valentine’s softheartedness toward the downtrodden, and her speculations after the hominid’s death:

You who know, and where vast knowing
is born of poverty, abundance of poverty –

make it so the poor are no longer
despised and thrown away.

Science fiction author Philip K. Dick’s best lines were delivered by Rutger Hauer at the end of the film Blade Runner, in which the “dying” replicant delivered a soliloquy and admonition to the human whose life he had spared – of the things he’d seen, which would be lost upon his passing, as, implicitly, will our memories upon ours. (His words don’t matter: it was his thought that counts.) And so it will be, except for some words read, and some songs sung, in a future time, by others not yet named. We won’t be there in our present forms. We are here now, so we may say, with gratitude, with añjali mudrā, namaste:

Thank you, Jean, for visiting our dreams.

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Break the Glass, published by Copper Canyon Press, is linked from jeanvalentine.com.

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